8 Wild but True Inheritance Tales

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Woman with money
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Ever daydream about coming into a sudden fortune? It’s a common fantasy. And, while we shouldn’t count on it, this fantasy does come true on occasion. Through strange and sometimes bizarre circumstances, the poor are elevated to the ranks of the very wealthy.

Following are true stories of people — and animals — getting rich from surprise inheritances, and one story of a guy who nearly got away with stealing a massive estate.

Money growing all down the family tree

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It’s a story straight out of a novel: suddenly inheriting money from a mysterious uncle halfway around the world. But it’s real.

More than 100 people may inherit a share of the $11 million estate of Joseph Stancak, a frugal figure who lived in Chicago and died at 87 in 2016, according to Block Club Chicago. It’s believed to be the largest return of unclaimed property in U.S. history.

The money has taken this long to be distributed because of the complexity of the case. Stancak had no immediate living relatives and not much was known about him. Investigators spent years piecing together a family tree “five generations deep,” including cousins once or twice removed as far-flung as Slovakia and the Czech Republic. None of them had ever heard of Stancak, though only 16 heirs even live in the U.S.

Once taxes are paid and all heirs sign off on the settlement — a process that will require several legal documents to be translated into multiple languages — each heir is expected to receive about $60,000.

Heirs chosen from the phone book

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What could be more random than having your name chosen out of a phone book? Luis Carlos de Noronha Cabral da Camara, a Portuguese aristocrat, selected random people from a Lisbon telephone directory to be his heirs. He picked them in the presence of two witnesses 13 years before his death.

The aristocrat was a childless bachelor at the time of his demise, at age 42. Some of his beneficiaries were so shocked at their good fortune that they initially believed they were being scammed, the BBC reported.

Feng shui master nearly arranges a fortune

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Some people go to great lengths to secure an inheritance. Nina Wang, a Hong Kong tycoon, allegedly had signed over her fortune to a feng shui master because he promised her eternal life, Reuters reported. (Feng shui is a Chinese practice of using energy forces to create harmony within someone’s surrounding environment.)

Wang — once known as Asia’s wealthiest woman, with an estate that reports estimated at more than $12 billion — died in 2007. The feng shui master, Tony Chan, claimed to be her only beneficiary, based on a will drafted in 2006. Wang’s family went to court to overturn the will, however. A Hong Kong court in 2013 sentenced Chan to 12 years in jail after finding him guilty of forgery.

A very pampered pooch

Maltese dog with bow in hair
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Leona Helmsley, a billionaire New York City businesswoman and hotelier renowned for her tough demeanor, had a soft spot for a dog named Trouble. She bought the Maltese after the death of her husband, Harry, according to ABC News, and she and her pet motored around town in a stretch limousine.

When Helmsley died in 2007, she left Trouble a $12 million inheritance through a trust fund. A judge later reduced the dog’s inheritance to $2 million, but the loss did not rob Trouble of a life of ease. A caretaker tended to her around the clock at a cost of $100,000 a year until her death in 2010, after which Helmsley’s will stipulated that Trouble would lie next to her in the family mausoleum.

From alley cat to top cat

Cat lounging on chaise
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A homeless cat that wandered the streets of Rome was taken in by an elderly woman named Maria Assunta, the New York Daily News reported. When Assunta died in 2011, she left behind a handwritten will in which she instructed her attorneys to find an animal welfare organization to receive her inheritance and look after the cat she had named Tommaso.

Under Italian law, Tommaso could not inherit directly, so an appropriate trustee had to be found. The inheritance, equivalent to $8.5 million in U.S. currency, went to a fellow cat lover whom Assunta had met in a park a few weeks before her death.

DNA test makes mogul of maid

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Did you ever wonder if you were the secret child of wealthy parents? Eva Paole of Argentina was working as a maid when she discovered that her birth father actually was a wealthy landowner. She believed she was entitled to his estate and took her claim to court.

Following a legal battle and the exhumation of her grandmother’s remains to prove that Paole’s DNA linked her to the family, the woman inherited a $40 million estate, reported the Fine High Living website.

A treasure lurking in an old family trunk

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Who would have thought an old pair of jeans dating to the 19th century could be worth a small fortune? One pair of such jeans was passed down through a family in a wooden trunk that once belonged to Arizona pioneer Solomon Warner, eventually coming into the hands of his great-great-grandson, Jock Taylor.

The design of the jeans showed that they were made by Levi Strauss & Co. The fact that they had just one back pocket meant that they were made prior to 1901, when the company added a second pocket to their well-known jeans. Eager to own the artifact, Levi Strauss & Co. offered Taylor $50,000 for the jeans. Taylor decided to wait for a better offer. The jeans eventually sold for almost $100,000.

Grandma’s fortune finds its way to penniless brothers

Hands of a homeless person begging.
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Brothers Zsolt and Geza Peladi were homeless in 2009, living in a cave outside Budapest, Hungary, and scavenging junk for a living in Hungary when they learned they had inherited a fortune from a grandmother in Germany. The siblings were located by charity workers and put in touch with the attorneys who were handling the estate of their maternal grandmother in Baden-Württemberg, The Telegraph reported.

The once-penniless brothers received 4 billion pounds. Today, that would be equivalent to more than $5 billion in U.S. dollars.

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